The Uncomfortable PE Investor

May 19th, 2017

Whoever taught a young investor how to create great relationships? The thought dawned on me leaving a meeting with two forty-something European mid-market private equity investors. One was open, welcoming, used self-disclosure and possessed a mindset that actively encouraged reciprocal exchange of ideas, names and insights. The other, hid behind a corporate ethos of privacy, rarely showed interest in reciprocity and maintained a mindset that he knew everyone worth knowing. The former is a top performing fund manager running a $500M fund with over 6 closed deals in the public domain this past 18 months, the latter recently closed his first $200M fund with zero visible public success. If you were a limited partner or an entrepreneur, wouldn’t you have expected the exact opposite traits given the track record and profile?

Private equity is first and foremost a relationship business. Relationships based on trust and value. Developed by creating a seductive rapport (personal chemistry, powerful intellect, effective use of language) with entrepreneurs, limited partners and advisers. Manifest by converting that seductive rapport into deals closed, value created and profitable exits that create a “win-win” situation for the firm’s key constituents. Yet it seems a great many leaders in European private equity firms are totally complacent about their fund managers’ relationship building skills and behaviours, believing that financial acumen and capital alone will lure outstanding entrepreneurs with outstanding businesses. That is crap but hey, they’ll wait for 10 years to find the errors of their ways. In which time, the Fund Manager will have collected his monthly check, been promoted twice and sit smugly admiring his or her personal bank statement.

© James Berkeley 2017. All Rights Reserved.

 

Fake News: HR

May 2nd, 2017

A KPMG co-promoted piece, in an otherwise interesting London business magazine, The Informer, carries a sub-title, “Meet the game changers having real influence on business strategy”. It references the creation of the Chief Human Resource Officer title, and its’ rising importance “as the person who enables the business strategy alongside the other “C” roles.” It cites as hard evidence, two people in a Harvard Business Review article, Mary Barra (CEO of General Motors, lasted 18 months in HR part of a 25+ year career) and Anne Mulcahy (past CEO of Xerox, lead the HR function part of her early management development). Prizes, if you can name any others, who came close to that position or truly “enabled” business strategy in an organisation you worked for or advised? I can give you 500 CEO examples, who spent most of their career in sales, marketing, finance or operational management responsibilities.

Then it states that the proportion of HR functions in FTSE 100 businesses led today by a career HR person has risen from 69% to 80%, “demonstrating relevant experience is vital in the current climate”. Since when has deep experience in a silo function been critical in a complex and ambiguous environment? Shouldn’t critical people decisions and accountability be in the hands of the line mangers directly responsible for implementing an organisation’s strategy? I have met and advised hundreds of HR leaders in some of the world’s finest businesses. I can count on two hands the number of individuals, who were outstanding.

This sort of article does consultants a disfavour because a large, respected consulting brand doesn’t ask the tough questions about clients, who pay it billions of dollars. It trumpets weak evidence and it suggests an alternative that is largely without merit.

© James Berkeley 2017. All Rights Reserved.

 

Sleepwalking In Business

April 28th, 2017

 

My young daughter is going through a period of arriving in our bedroom unannounced in the middle of the night, oblivious to her propensity for sleepwalking or the dangers that lie in her pathway. In almost every high-growth or mid-market business I review for investors, there are instances where the firm is consciously doing things (excessive customer needs analysis), which result in the business “landing” in unfavourable locations (slower client acquisition times), and dramatically increasing the risk for investors (cashflow). Look around your business and ask yourself a simple question, “If it was my money at stake, what would we stop doing tomorrow or do more efficiently?” Then, “why do I not bring this to my direct report and colleagues’ attention?” It is easy to blame others but great businesses are built on high levels of personal accountability at all levels that have zero to do with how much I am paid or my title.

© James Berkeley 2017. All Rights Reserved.

 

Profit In A False Sense of Security

April 26th, 2017

 

I am fascinated by the probable cause when owners, Boards and top management in mid-market businesses (US$10M to US$Bn), “don’t take the money” and shortly thereafter, end up with a failing or failed business. Specifically, when a serious offer is made for growth capital or even an outright sale of the business, and in the next 6-12 months after the refusal, the fortunes of the business partially or totally collapse. Nowhere is this more visible than today’s high growth private tech businesses (the infamous “unicorns”) and in an often overlooked area, service businesses with a powerful owner-operator or managing partner in a partnership structure.

The decision-making factors are consistent throughout. The business has deliberated carefully or taken an opportunistic approach to accepting external capital or key talent. What has varied is the owners’, the Board’s  and/or top management’s judgement, resilience or trust over time. Faced with changing market conditions (regulation, technological and other convergent forces), a key client “win” or “loss”, rising/declining investor or trade interest and so on, there is a discernible change. They consciously ignore other’s prudent advice that they have implicitly trusted in the past (mitigating risk). They increasingly believe that they are “impregnable” in their market position (market hype or vanity investments). They allow common sense to be distorted by inflated but unsubstantiated talk (valuations, growth prospects, barriers to entry, unique technology etc.).

Having worked with six privately-held mid-market businesses over the past 3 years around the globe, who turned down offers and subsequently, experienced very public falls from grace (legal, e-commerce, hotels, gaming, financial services), the underlying “cause” in my experience is ultimately, poor leadership. It is people, not the business that have screwed up.

For my current and prospective clients reading this, who fear my strategic advice comes with a poison in the tail, rest assured I have had a great many more winners than losers!

Yet in the immediate aftermath of a partial or total business failure, there is a rush to assume that the firm’s opportunistic or conservative approach to accepting new capital or talent is the “cause”. That is inaccurate, and here is why. There are a great many successful businesses, who have been consistent in adopting diametrically opposed approaches to accepting external capital or ownership (in insurance, AJ Gallagher vs Hub International, in hotels, Peninsula vs. Fairmont Raffles, or in the premium art business, Christie’s vs Sotheby’s). In just the same way, sticking to niche products, services or geographies or constantly, adopting a diversification approach, is rarely the “cause” of failure.

Take great care in jumping to a conclusion. Profit is to be found, as many smart long-short investors have found, in looking out for a business owner’s, the Board’s and/or top management’s increasing false sense of security, the resulting changes in their behaviour and the positive/negative impact on their business and the competition.

© James Berkeley 2017. All Rights Reserved.

 

Exclusive Invite: Private Equity International’s Operating Partners Forum

April 13th, 2017

Intrigued by what a private equity operating partner does, the value they create and the critical issues (digital, strategic, operational) in European private equity now and the next 12 months? Here is an exclusive invitation.

I am back for a third year moderating a panel session (3/4 May, 2017 IOD London) with a great cast that includes a former CEO of one of Europe’s top-ranked private equity firms, a Cambridge-educated Austrian doing great work in infrastructure investing and an Italian transforming the fortunes of a German Family Office. If you have an iota of interest in value creation, join me at Europe’s pre-eminent event featuring 70+ operating partners and 30+ limited partners in intimate surroundings.

http://www.cvent.com/events/operating-partners-forum-europe-2017/event-summary-c2532f5d6ccc4666acd807e72568cbf0.aspx

Here is a deal, sign up using this code and receive a 15% discount off the registration fee (OPspeaker17) PLUS for the first six subscribers I am buying breakfast on Day 2. There are currently 4 seats remaining.

There is no other such gathering for the remainder of the year. If you are unable to make it but interested in receiving a quick “free” checklist of the key takeaways, drop me a note to james@elliceconsulting.com. I’ll make sure that you are on the distribution list.

© James Berkeley 2017. All Rights Reserved.

Brexit: Now Britain Quits EU What Is Next

March 29th, 2017

Four years ago, I contributed to this International Business Times article on Brexit. The impoverished reporter, Moran Zhang, is now a highly paid equity analyst at a Boston asset manager. Life is good.

http://www.ibtimes.com/brexit-if-britain-quits-eu-what-then-1106522

Unlike most forecasters, I am willing to be intellectually honest about my predictions!

#1 I suggested that there was a 70% chance the UK would be still in a reformed European Union. That reform hasn’t discernibly arrived, and from Wednesday, Britain is formally leaving.

#2 I suggested there was a 25% chance the UK would be part of the “outer rings of the European Union”. That will almost certainly be the end-game in some shape or form.

#3 I suggested Brexit would be a process, not an event. There would be no zero cut-off, which is exactly what is happening. The UK will still have commitments after the formal exit date, which it must or wants to keep, for example, security cooperation.

Where Are We Today? A 20% devaluation against the USD, a more attractive export environment, a stock market near all-time highs and near record low interest rates. Signs of inflation increasingly present in the food we buy at the local stores. By almost all measures, we remain in a largely attractive environment for inwards investment, consumer confidence, albeit productivity improvements are slow to feed through and personal debt levels remain high. There remain sharp geographical distinctions. A city state in London that has abundant foreign wealth slushing around, albeit not so much into £10M+ prime residential property but still seeking a home in private equity via funds or increasingly direct investment.  A robust jobs market. In comparison, some of the provincial towns and particularly in Victorian seaside resorts, where prospects for commercial businesses and the local population are less rosy. High streets (or Main Street, as my American friends love to refer to it), is symbolised by abundant charity shops dispersed between closing down sales. Little or no meaningful investment into new economies and new careers. There is a visible political, economic and social divide.

Where Are We Headed? Does anyone really know? Of course not but that doesn’t stop us hazarding a guess. We are in for a minimum 18 months of fraught negotiation, where I think those in the strongest position (Germany) will push the case for a fair settlement with the UK and those in the weakest position, will stubbornly resist (France, Italy, Spain). Politicians will think with logic and act on emotion. Traditional enmities and grievances will be magnified. Leaving is not going to be easy for those remaining in Europe and the UK. Fault lines already visible in the UK, will become more adversarial. We have to learn not to take what others say literally but to take them seriously. That applies to those outside the political bubble, investors, businesses and those directly affected by the political decisions. It is a boom time for patient private capital that can look beyond the immediate volatility.

Life after Brexit for the UK, is also largely dependant on the speed and quality of the trading alternatives. Can the UK create or rather build powerful interfaces with non-EU members to attract abundant sources of capital, people and innovation? Can it manage that process while adhering to the need to control immigration? Probably so. The UK’s future relationship with US, China, India, Canada and so on, has two forks the public (trading agreements) and most importantly, the private sector, the ability of UK SME and mid-market firms, the largest net jobs creators, to open new foreign markets, to attract new sources of capital, to spur new innovation not simply solve existing problems and so forth. The headlines about large global employers shifting jobs are far less significant, yet the media doesn’t portray that story.

The real story is the skills, behaviours and experience each of us has to thrive in that environment. What are we going to do about it? What are we going to push our employers, employees and investors to do about it? What has got us to where we are today, is in all likelihood going to be insufficient in a post-Brexit UK.

My prediction is that in four more years, 2021, there is a 70% chance the UK is in a more prosperous position than we are today. I think there is a 20% chance that we are in a mildly negative position (period of extended sluggish growth). A 5% chance that we are in a disastrously worse position (serious recession, sharp contraction in spending).

I didn’t vote for Brexit but now we are where we are today. Private polling has shown that there is a “silent majority” (former “Remainers” and “Brexiteers”) determined to make a success of their lives. There will of course be the “Victims of Brexit”. Those who will link the decision to leave the EU to their current and future woes, while consciously disregarding their failure to personally reinvest in their own skills, behavioural traits and experience. Those, who absolve themselves from personal accountability for the decisions that are within their control.

Let’s regroup in March 2021!

Adieu.

© James Berkeley 2017. All Rights Reserved.

 

Bring Something Meaningful

March 29th, 2017

 

I get approached at a minimum, by 3 people a week proposing some form of “collaboration”. Most commonly, other advisers, entrepreneurs, co-investors and bankers trying to access my investor or client communities and their capital, people or innovation. In most cases, they are decent people with a genuine request, who have been a success in their corporate careers. In their latest entrepreneurial incarnation, they have “capped” out their personal networks and/or they are unable to accomplish their goals without external assistance. Their “well” is running dry and they want me to share my water. They are largely offering symbolic (greater presence or a share of faux-success fees), not meaningful value (a powerful brand or actual cash).

I am a huge believer in collaboration as a powerful form of leverage. However, first, it needs to pass my litmus test:

  1. Combined, there is a scarcity and dramatically enhanced value that will significantly impact the speed and quality of my client acquisition prospects.
  2. There is an attractive short-term business opportunity of mutual interest (potential client, visible need with a strong fit and ease of implementation).
  3. I can and definitely want to help after considering prudent risk and potential reward.

I’d suggest I am not alone if you think about the quantum of conceptual collaborative discussions that you are presented with. Do you possess these simple questions, to reach a fast conclusion or do you allow multiple meetings and information exchanges to follow before reaching a conclusion?

Above all, is the other party bringing something meaningful? Yes or No.

Nothing more is required.

© James Berkeley 2017. All Rights Reserved.

 

 

 

 

High Touch Trumping Parking Tech

March 28th, 2017

 

High tech is dramatically improving the way we live (transportation, medicine, education and so forth). Yet in some areas particularly related to prevention it is trumping a high touch customer experience for close to zero benefit. Nowhere more so than the indiscriminate use of ANPR technology to record number plates entering and leaving car parks. The technology isn’t smart enough. In a recent example, to inquire about a hotel night stay and meet a fellow guest, it required entering late night through a car park using the technology. For reasons that were out of my control I had to wait for an extended period outside the hotel’s front door. There was close to zero signage visible about the snake pit I had driven into or even awareness of what lay in store until a further two weeks had elapsed when in the mail arrived a £100 penalty notice. Apparently I had stayed longer than permitted even though I wasn’t technically parked and indeed was interacting with the hotel’s front desk. When I sought to appeal you are directed to a cumbersome and legalese riddled process that exclusively treats you like a transgressor.

Thankfully, the common sense intervention of the Hotel’s Deputy General Manager, Jena Smith, was able to right a wrong. When investors look at early-stage tech businesses, the right question to ask is, this business addressing a human need, solving a human problem or kindling the human spirit. Quite clearly, the owners of Parking Eye, Capita, who shelled out £54 million four years ago for Parking Eye, never stopped to consider that simple question. Or if they did, they have come to a warped conclusion that driving away huge volumes of repeat and referral business from the surrounding businesses, generating huge negative media publicity and hiding behind weak boiler-plate defences, is a great advert for the CEO and their Board’s genius.

© James Berkeley 2017. All Rights Reserved.

Uncommon Culture and Family Office Direct Investing

March 27th, 2017

 

I often ask CEOs in high growth investee businesses controlled by sizeable Family Offices,  a simple question: “Are you being treated as you would treat others in the business? Be honest, in reality, how often is that the case?” The single most common underlying issue, is conformity to the prevailing belief system.

CEOs have differing levels of propensity to conform to the beliefs that govern the behaviour of a Family and the key people in its’ Family Office (the culture). At one extreme, highly inflexible, and at the other end, highly flexible.

The most successful families in direct investing have adopted a belief system that is highly similar to outstanding for profit and not-for-profit organisations. Think of Weybourne Partners (James Dyson’s Family Office), MSD Capital, (Michael Dell’s Family Office) or Grosvenor (the Duke of Westminster’s family entity).

In contrast, where direct investing has historically been a very small part of a Family’s wealth but a decision is made to ramp up its’ activity, culture is a huge issue. The Family Office wants to increase control and involvement of the capital deployed in profitably growing the portfolio businesses. Yet, the operating beliefs that pervade the Family Office rarely change or not quick enough, to support the new or enhanced direct investing strategy.

Take a recent example, the newly installed CEO in a European luxury business, who arrived with a strong industry reputation but zero experience working within, distinct from consulting to Family Offices. The coterie of key people in the Family Office, what I term the “protectors” sought to immediately reinforce and immerse the CEO in the existing belief system. “This is how the Family has always done things….” “This is what Mrs X expects…” “This is how you communicate with her….”  Yet, if the luxury business was to achieve the shared vision of the Family Principal and the CEO, some quite radical changes needed to be made to the Family Office’s typical direct investment approach – changes to governance, speed, communication, rapid access to resources and so forth. The “house style”, wasn’t going to work in a fast moving, highly competitive sector.

Does the CEO conform or push back? If they do the latter, how do they do that without upsetting the apple cart? How do they accomplish that if the protectors, and the Family Principal, consciously create distance? How do they stop the protectors “playing” the Family Principal (self-interested feedback) and not projecting their biases?

There are three means of the Family Office getting the investee company’s CEO to conform: by coercion (threat), by peer pressure (“the in-crowd”) or by self-interest (personal benefit). Only one alternative works, self-interest.

Ultimately, it requires

  1. A CEO with a high level of self-worth and the skills to not only formulate strategy but implement it.
  2. A flexible and intellectually honest CEO. Not to the extreme of absolute conformity and equally never compromising where it is detrimental to the critical and highly important aspects of their strategy.
  3. A Family Principal and their key people with the volition to listen and act appropriately.
  4. A willingness to adapt the Family Office belief system to the needs of the new direct investment strategy and where appropriate, the performance, accountability, feedback and rewards systems.

There is a lot of talk about an inability to change family culture, most of it is rubbish. Of course, the Family Office can change but does it possess the will to do so? If it doesn’t that needs to at the top of its’ direct investing criteria in selecting portfolio businesses and the leadership traits it hires in.

© James Berkeley 2017. All Rights Reserved.

 

The Investor Casting Couch

March 22nd, 2017

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“The Investor Casting Couch”: a mindset that says we are best served at our first meeting, acting cagey, and getting the other party (co-investor, adviser or entrepreneur) to reveal themselves to us first to protect our own self-interest, at all costs. In extreme cases, we must do as little as possible to reveal our own past, ideas or intellectual property.

Reality: Your actions merely serve to show that you have close to zero interest in building a trusting peer-level relationship, collegiality or collaborating in anything other than constant “fear” (stolen IP or contacts). You might, of course, be right on the odd occasion when you have a rogue across the boardroom table. However, 9 times out of 10 assuming that you have done your due diligence properly, you are merely revealing the depth and breath of your own insecurities. Why would you create that first impression? In the misplaced belief, it projects your superiority when all it does is project your stupidity. Why would anyone, except the desperate, choose to spend a millisecond further in your company?

I see this mindset widely adopted by experienced bankers, corporate financiers, private equity and venture capital professionals to the point of huge irritation. They have been a success in their career but they refuse to act like a success. Stop, in the name of common sense!

© James Berkeley 2017. All Rights Reserved.